Littell's Living Age/Volume 129/Issue 1662/Landed Property in Prince Edward Island

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Littell's Living Age, Volume 129, Issue 1662
Landed Property in Prince Edward Island

From The Saturday Review.


The compulsory transfer of property in Prince Edward Island may perhaps have alarmed nervous English landowners who have become acquainted with the transaction by occasional conversations in Parliament. The precedents of which the Irish Land Act was the first are likely to accumulate with constantly diminishing regard for rules which were once deemed immutable. Every separate act of interference with property is excused, and perhaps justified, by the special circumstances of the case; but the common principle that private right must yield to real or supposed public convenience acquires additional practical importance by each successive recognition of its validity. The expropriation of the landowners in Prince Edward Island has received the more or less willing assent of Lord Granville, Lord Kimberley, Lord Dufferin, and Lord Carnarvon. It may therefore be assumed that some measure of the kind was necessary, or that it was less objectionable than the probable results of an alternative policy; but property is a delicate institution, depending for its security on unbroken custom. In Prince Edward Island, as in Ireland, the concessions which were professedly due to reasons of practical convenience had been clamorously demanded on revolutionary and communistic grounds. Occupiers who were impatient of the existence of landlords have for some years announced that property in land was a usurpation, and that the soil naturally belonged to the actual cultivators. It is probable that they may change their minds since they have acquired their freeholds for an almost nominal consideration. The occupiers of the island will repay the debt which they owe to the Irish tenantry by furnishing arguments in favour of Mr. Butt's agitation for the transfer of the remaining rights of Irish landowners. After a time English proprietors will be reminded in turn that their interests also are subject to the discretion of the legislature. Some of them are prematurely inviting attack by the suicidal policy of confiscating property which happens to be excepted from the ordinary course of hereditary succession.

It must be admitted that the absentee landowners of Prince Edward Island occupied an invidious position. Lord Carnarvon lately informed the House of Lords that about a hundred years ago the land was acquired by their predecessors in title through the odd machinery of a raffle. The prizes in the crown lottery were estates of twenty thousand acres each; and the winners, who perhaps scarcely understood where their new possessions were situated, could have little intention of colonizing the island in their own persons. The actual settlers have since held their tenements at a trifling rent, which has in most cases run into arrear. The prevalence and popularity of freehold tenures throughout the continent of North America not unnaturally rendered the islanders discontented with their position; but fifty or thirty years ago it would have been useless to ask the assent of a lieutenant-governor of the colonial office to measures for the compulsory acquisition of holdings by occupiers. The establishment and growth of popular power exercised by a democratic legislature has since changed the conditions of the controversy. One of the parties in the dispute returns all the members, while the other only held the property which was coveted by the constituency. An analogous division between the basis of taxation and that of representation has in other countries produced the results which might be expected. In Prince Edward Island the question was not as to the distribution of public burdens, but as to the ownership of all the land in the colony. Several bills were successively passed to enable the government to buy out the proprietors on terms so inequitable that the colonial minister or the governor-general of Canada refused to assent to them. Both Lord Dufferin and Lord Carnarvon at last sanctioned in 1875 an act which has effected the object of abolishing leasehold tenures. It appears by a recital in the preamble that when the island was annexed to Canada, the government of the Dominion undertook to contribute eight hundred thousand dollars for the purpose of enabling the government of the province to buy up the leasehold lands. The act constituted a commission which was to assess the compensation to be paid to the owners, the governor-general, the lieutenant-governor of the island, and the proprietors themselves respectively nominating one of the three commissioners.

Mr. Childers, who was appointed a commissioner by Lord Dufferin, was obliged to return to England after making an award on the claims of ten considerable proprietors. The principles on which he adjudicated have probably been adopted by his successors; and to those who are unacquainted with the country the results seem at least to explain the loudly expressed dissatisfaction of the expropriated owners. For the freehold of one hundred and thirty thousand acres of land the arbitrators awarded sixty thousand pounds. There is no reason to doubt either their competence or their impartiality, though the losers by the transaction may be excused for including the commissioners in the blame which they impute to the provincial legislature, to the government of the Dominion, and to the colonial minister. By the 28th section of the act the commissioners are required to consider, amongst other things, the price at which other proprietors have sold their land, the arrears of rent, the gross rental already paid by the tenants during the previous six years, and the net receipts of the proprietor, the number of acres held by adverse claimants, and the possibility of ejecting them, and the condition of the original grants from the crown. As the tenants have for many years, with the concurrence of the legislature, baffled and thwarted the proprietors by all possible means in their efforts to assert their rights, their resistance to the law is now rewarded by a proportional diminution in the compensation allowed to the proprietor. Adverse claimants are probably squatters, with no title but possession; and the undoubted difficulty of ejecting them from their holdings authorizes a further deduction from the amount of compensation. The proprietors had protested loudly against all the measures of the provincial Assembly, including the act of 1875; but it is not surprising that the smallness of the sums awarded by the commissioners is regarded, not as a necessary consequence of previous legislation, but as a new and distinct grievance. No objection can be made to a provision that no percentage should be allowed for compulsory purchase. Residents in England who had inherited large tracts of land in a distant colony could not be supposed to feel any sentimental attachment to their estates. It must not be forgotten, that all the deductions allowed by the act really corresponded to drawbacks from the value of the property. If no transfer had been effected, the leaseholders would constantly have become more turbulent and more contumacious.

The action of the provincial legislature was first suggested by Lord Granville in a despatch which referred to the Irish Land Act, then recently passed. The principle of compulsory interference was common to Ireland and to the colony; but the reasons which were thought to render the application of the principle expedient were as different as the economic circumstances of the two countries. The remedies were also unlike, for in Ireland proprietors have not been compelled to sell their estates, and in Prince Edward Island there are no evicted tenants to receive compensation. In one country land was scarce and dear, and it was the object of incessant competition. Prince Edward Island is thinly settled, and some of the proprietors owned large tracts of uncultivated land. The universal establishment of freehold tenures will probably promote population and prosperity. Ireland was twenty years ago over-peopled; and it has at present a sufficient number of inhabitants. It is a cause for regret that the leasehold tenures in Prince Edward Island were not voluntarily commuted some years ago, when their proprietors might probably have secured more liberal terms. A similar measure would not be applicable to England, where the accumulation of large estates, and the customary relation of landlord and tenant, result in a great degree from economical causes; but there can be no doubt that the precedent will often be quoted. The Irish Land Act passed on the assurance of the government that the recognition of exceptional circumstances would not affect the security of property in other parts of the United Kingdom; but one of Mr. Gladstone's colleagues has often since publicly contended that the principle of the Irish Act must in consistency be applied to England. Lord Dufferin and Lord Carnarvon may be acquitted of willingness to tamper with the foundations of property; but their authority will be hereafter invoked in favour of schemes for the redistribution of land.